Royal Opera House (venue)
30 January 2018 (released)
02 February 2018
Salome is not for the faint-hearted. This is not because it's a one act opera of one hour forty five minutes, played without an interval. At least I suppose that might deter those who like to enjoy the Opera Houses elegant bars as much as the music. But the real reason is the sheer intensity of the music which rises to dazzling, almost torturing heights, in accord with the ever-increasing horror of the story.
What begins as a nasty tale of debauchery and implied brutality soon becomes an epic of depraved love, murder and madness. The challenge it makes to the audience, however, is as nothing compared to the challenge to the musicians and the singers. Strauss, famously, gained his extraordinary effects, by employing a previously untried range of instruments, some of them invented for the purpose.
The orchestra of the ROH, under conductor Henrik Nanasi, surpass themselves in making sure the glittering stream of notes, some-times picturing the reality of such as mouth-fluttering on three flutes suggesting the terrified birds in the text, fuse with the action on stage and keep the audience transfixed.
If the musicians need to play at the height of their powers, the singer who presents the alluring, deluded, ultimately tragic Salome, must carry the audience with her as the game she embarks on with Jokanaan, St. John the Baptist, rises to opera's most macabre ending as, thwarted of his living body, she demands his severed head. At first her approach is the teasing of a silly child who wants what she cannot have. But soon it turns into an obsession that takes over her mind and body and culminates in her long crazed aria while she caresses the bloody head of the martyr and finally kisses the lips that he denied to her.
The singer needs strength and conviction to succeed and Swedish soprano, Malin Bystrom who is also a concert performer, has both. She manages to be young and desirable in her silver dress but also terrifying and pitiable in the final bloody scene. Her voice builds throughout the opera and grows to such a passionate ecstasy at the end that her stepfather, Herod's command, 'Kill her!' seems almost an act of bravery. She has gone beyond ordinary human mercy.
This Tetrarch of Judea, Herod, is sung with suitable lust and self-indulgence by John Daszac. His lust after his stepdaughter hastens her into debauchery and, although the seven veils are performed in an oddly puritanical set of scenes in which as many clothes are put on as taken off, he must bear the weight of responsibility for Salome's actions. It is his decision to give her Jokanaan's head, just as it his decision to have her put to death at the end.
Between these two characters, one doomed and one beyond morality, stands Salome's mother, Herodias, sung by Michaela Schuster with the verve of a wicked and ageing beauty who sees her husband besotted by her beautiful young daughter. It is her promiscuous behaviour that arouses the wrath of John the Baptist when he emerges from his cell. These attacks sung with biblical wrath by Michael Volle, make certain of his death or at least make it more certain as Herodias encourages her husband to get rid of her accuser.
Although Salome's dance and John the Baptist's gory end is a story well known through history, Strauss based his opera on the play, first written in French, by Oscar Wilde and seen by the composer in 1902. He appreciated at once the psychological intensity which he increased by cutting down the characters so only the central four and, more particularly Herod, Jonakaan and Salome are given focus. The opera premiered in 1905 causing disquiet in some: Cosima Wagner commented, according to Strauss, 'This is absolute madness' not meaning it is a compliment. But it made Strauss the most successful opera composer of his time.
In England the first performance was conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and was also a success, despite the Lord Chamberlain insisting that John the Baptist's head should not appear on stage. This present production, a revival from 2008 has no such limitations. John McVicar's penchant for outrage finds the right home in this story. The re-setting in Nazi Germany, complete with his signature nudity works brilliantly as a vehicle for Herod's sinister world. The naked soldier, dripping with more blood than his sword, who hands Salome the severed head only underscores the violence and menace of the music.
As I said, Salome is not for the faint-hearted but the packed house rose in a roar of applause as the final notes faded. I shall certainly hope for another visit when it's revived again.
Music Richard Strauss
Libretto from Hedwig Lachmann's German translation of Oscar Wilde's play Salome
Conductor Henrik Nanasi
Director David McVicar Revivel Director Barbara Lluch
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